Seven Tennessee pastors have pledged to endorse various political candidates in their September 26th sermons. This action could endanger their tax-exempt status with the IRS, but that is not stopping a group of pastors of various denominations from encouraging their congregations to vote for their pre-selected candidates.
The issue has raised First Amendment questions about why a church’s tax-exempt status should be linked to its political partisanship and that restricting what a preacher can say to his congregation is a limit on free speech. Jeremy H. of Brentwood said, “Churches have been allowed to spread their misinformation with lies and scare tactics for generations. The last thing they need is the ability to politically indoctrinate their followers as well.”
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission told The Tennessean that “the mixing of the sacred nature of the church with the exceedingly worldly nature of politics is … unseemly.”
“It puts congregations in an awkward position. It’s not a wise thing for churches to endorse candidates. We think candidates should endorse us,” said Land. Land also expressed reservations about potentially alienating members of their churches with differing political views. “I’m supposed to minister to everyone.”
Rev. Barry Lynn, Executive Director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, commented, “Clergy serve as spiritual advisers, not political bosses. Pulpit politicking violates federal tax law and offends the vast majority of church-goers.”
This rebellion by clergy has rekindled the debate of whether churches should be tax-exempt at all. In 1881, President James Garfield said, “The divorce between Church and State ought to be absolute. It ought to be so absolute that no Church property anywhere, in any state or in the nation, should be exempt for equal taxation; for if you exempt the property of any church organization to that extent you impose a tax upon the whole community.” [emphasis added]
See About.com for more information about tax-exempt status for churches.